BERLIN - Welcome home, Holy Father. Welcome back to your native Germany, where up to 300,000 people in Berlin, Erfurt, Etzelsbach and Freiburg will pray and sing with you. But welcome also to a country where dozens of Bundestag deputies announced a boycott of your speech before the German parliament -- the first major stop on the visit Thursday -- and more than 10,000 are expected to demonstrate over the next four days against the kind of Catholicism you represent, which they consider the embodiment of all that is rigid and doctrinaire about religion.
On the first day of his homecoming, Benedict XVI met Germanys Catholic-born president, who, as a divorced and remarried man, cannot under Church rules partake in communion. His itinerary also includes a meeting with a Protestant Chancellor, married for a second time, and a Catholic mayor who is openly gay. Klaus Wowereit, Berlins gay mayor, has expressed a certain sympathy with opponents of the Pope, and Christian Wulff, Germanys president, says hes hoping the Pope will deliver a liberating message for the millions of divorced Catholics like himself who have remarried.
So welcome, Pope Benedict, to Germany -- a difficult homeland.
The person of Joseph Ratzinger
The Pope is making a lot of effort on this trip to the country of his birth, where the Catholic Church has lost so much respect and credibility. The 84-year-old will be making 17 speeches before he returns to Rome on Sunday. But Germany will remain a country that is tough on the Church, because the mutual disconnect is too deeply entrenched -- and this disconnect has also attached itself disproportionately to the person of Joseph Ratzinger
From Romes point of view, the Catholic Church in Germany has something unreliable, truculent even, about it. Havent Catholics there been infected more strongly than elsewhere with the spirit of the Reformation? Was there not, in the 19th century, a strong national church movement reacting against Romes anti-modernism and seeking to reconcile belief with enlightenment? Arent those Catholic associations in Germany basically children of the German Revolutions of 1848? And is the tight state-church bond that exists in Germany not an attempt to monopolize religion?
After trips to the Vatican, German bishops talk about how difficult it is to explain that the Church in Germany continues to perceive itself as bound to the Pope, that independent theology at state universities is not synonymous with a loss of faith, or that critical youth organizations can also be a blessing for the Church. But talk to people in the Vatican, and they find the Germans irritating: if an Italian doesnt agree with the teachings of the Church he would handle it differently. The Germans on the other hand always have to instigate a debate about basic principles.
Joseph Ratzinger is both a child and a critic of German Catholicism. His was a Catholic childhood of unquestioning faith, but later as a high-profile university professor he was shaken by the student revolts that took place in 1968. He criticized the Church, pointing out that some of its theologians often autocratically strayed from church teaching, or that the Church was rich materially, but poor in faith. The future of the Church, he believed, did not lie in adjusting to the modern day, but in opposing relativism -- both in regard to the truth of faith, and the social order as God willed it.
So in Germany, passionate debate about whether the Catholic Church should approach or distance itself from the zeitgeist became inexorably linked to the figure of Joseph Ratzinger, who had risen to become the Vatican Cardinal in charge of doctrinal matters. It was he who with atypical sharpness explained that the churches of the Reformation were not really churches in the real sense. It was due to his stubbornness that Germanys Catholic Church had to withdraw from the states pregnancy counseling system. For a brief period of jubilation after his election as Pope in 2005 these differences and wounds were swept under the carpet, even after Benedict, in his 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg, not only managed to insult Muslims but to portray the period of history from the Church Fathers through the Reformation to Immanuel Kant as one of decline.
Now the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. After the anger at Benedict XVIs reinstatement of bishops (including a Holocaust denier) belonging to the ultra-conservative Society of Saint Pius X in 2009, and after so many cases of sexual violence have emerged the atmosphere has gone from uncritical in 2006 to the sometimes overly critical in 2011. Most non-Catholics in Germany view this visit with more or less benign disinterest. Catholics are hoping for some words of encouragement. "Just so he doesnt goof up," says one of the people helping to get the stadium ready. The hope is that he doesnt say yet another thing that is misunderstood, that discredits the whole trip and his good intentions. Just so he doesnt dig himself an even deeper hole in his own homeland.
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